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Shifting The Balance Of Forces Through Sanctions Against Trump And US Carbon Capital

Above photo: Protesters demonstrate on the opening day for the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Vancouver, Feb. 28, 2017. Photo: Getty Images/Stephanie Lamy

This is a chapter written in 2018 for  John Foran, Debashish Munshi, Kum Bhavnani and Priya Kurian (Eds), Climate Futures: Re-imagining Global Climate Justice(London: Zed Books, 2019). It feels appropriate to post today given that President Trump initiated formal steps for the United States to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement. This is a tactic deserving of serious consideration.

Future climate scenarios are not only in the hands of state and corporate leaders; they depend upon the extent to which climate movement activists’ current political philosophies, analyses, strategies, tactics, and alliances either weaken or strengthen the prevailing balance of forces. The most important barrier to reducing climate change remains Washington’s philosophy, crudely expressed in 1992 when President George H. W. Bush told the Rio Earth Summit, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations” (Deen 2012).

In the same spirit, the Donald Trump administration removed the US from the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement in June 2017 on the grounds that compliance will be too expensive for the world’s largest economy (Trump 2017). In reality, starting with the Copenhagen Accord of 2009, Barack Obama’s State Department ensured that United Nations climate negotiations were (unlike the Kyoto Protocol) voluntary and non-binding. The Paris Climate Accord avoided accountability mechanisms, and specifically prohibited “climate debt” liability lawsuits by climate victims for industrialized countries’ prior pollution (Bond 2016), as even its chief negotiator Todd Stern (2017) brags. Yet in spite of Obama pledging only $3 billion (in contrast to several trillion dollars his administration spent on bailing out banks), Trump (2017) expressed misplaced concern about the United Nations Green Climate Fund “costing the United States a vast fortune,” and that “massive liabilities” would result from damage done by US historic emissions.

Global-scale climate regulation had, by 2016, become generally acceptable to the US population, even if many in support also voted for Trump. In November 2016, the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication (2016) poll of registered voters found that 78 percent supported taxing or regulating emissions, and 69 percent agreed this should happen in an international agreement. In 2009 even Trump publicly supported the Copenhagen Accord, although by 2012 he argued (on Twitter) that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make the U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” (Trump 2012). His first 100-day plan stressed resurgent climate denialism as the default policy position; infrastructure construction focusing on fossil-fuel pipelines, airports, roads, and bridges; cancellation of international obligations including withdrawal from Paris and default on payment obligations to the Green Climate Fund; retraction of shale gas restrictions; enabling the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone pipeline; denuding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); and a (futile) attempt to “save the coal industry.” Further privatization of public land was also imminent, including Native reservations, in search of more fossil fuels.

The retreat from Paris opens up a new opportunity for a revived strategy and tactic: delegitimation of Trump, and sanctions against his regime and supportive US corporations more generally. Formidable alliances could be ignited internationally with much more positive implications for climate futures than otherwise exist. Such “social self-defence” alliances (Brecher 2017) would ideally have been forged on the day of Trump’s election in November 2016 (one network, United Resistance, appeared to do so in early 2017, but aside from an website, did not actively unite the 50 progressive groups which signed up).

But so far, even after Trump walked out of Paris, these alliances remain only potential political approaches, because even the most sophisticated, militant U.S. climate activists simply did not adopt any strategy aside from condemnation and defense of existing space (Funes 2017). There was no open discussion in the climate movements about how to change the balance of forces, aside from continuing to promote localized blockades against fossil fuel facilities, to defend (profoundly inadequate) state regulations and improve their enforcement, mostly via the courts, and to divest from the main fossil fuel companies and climate-destructive banks while encouraging reinvestment in clean energy. Each of these was a necessary strategy – but a much more decisive shift in the balance of forces will be necessary to secure a climate future that transcends just survival and moves society to the potentials Naomi Klein (2014) discusses in This Changes Everything. Such post-capitalist visions include renewable community-owned energy, massive investments in public transport, the burgeoning of organic agriculture, compact eco-cities, a widely-shared green production ethos, humane consumption (so indispensable for the survival of the global South), and “zero-waste” disposal so that oceans, rivers, and land may recover from the ‘Capitalocene’ (Moore 2016).

Trump’s survival requires a strategic rethink

The failure to take advantage of Trump’s regime to ratchet up pressure reflects the US Left’s general weakness. In spite of the political fragility, personal foibles, administrative chaos, leadership buffoonery and shrinking legitimacy, Trump’s first months in office failed to generate a sustained, unified response from the society’s progressive forces. Most critiques by the local US and world Left came from specific incidents or from sectorally-narrow interests. Protest marches on Washington regularly drew tens or even hundreds of thousands of women, tax justice advocates, scientists, and climate activists from January through April 2017, as well as impromptu immigrant protection rallies at airports. But these generally occurred without linkage or fusion, and without a convincing strategy for changing power relations. The most effective resistance to Trump came from either late-night comedians or competing elites.

However, there are important examples of powerful resistance, in part grounded in climate change advocacy. The main activist groups which attacked the Dakota Access Pipeline owner Energy Transfer Partners and its creditors – including Greenpeace,, BankTrack and Sierra Club – did “billions of dollars in damage” as a result of “campaigns of misinformation,” according to the firm’s lawsuit in August 2017 (Horn 2017). As a target of anti-corporate activism, according to’s May Boeve and Brett Fleishman (2017), “Exxon is the most famous example because the company’s own scientists actively studied the threat of climate change, and in response the company developed taller offshore drilling rigs in anticipation of rising sea levels. Yet while they were preparing for a warmer climate, they also funded campaigns claiming that the science was uncertain.” Exxon and other fossil fuel corporations were divestment victims of $5 trillion in withdrawn stock market financing, thanks to thousands of activists in universities, pension funds, churches and other institutions (Carrington 2016). City of London investment analysts Carbon Tracker had in 2012, recall Boeve and Fleishman (2017), “juxtaposed the amount of carbon the world could burn within ‘safe’ limits of global warming and the amount of carbon embedded in the reserves of the publicly traded fossil fuel companies – the coal, oil, and gas planned for future production. It provided incontrovertible evidence that the companies intended to burn all this carbon, and against the backdrop of increased caps on doing so, thereby creating a high likelihood for a massive stock devaluation: a ‘carbon bubble.’ This attracted the attention of more mainstream investors, who began to rank the carbon bubble as a material risk.”

How far might this divestment movement reach into Trump’s own wallet, and how far can his regime be delegitimated by a wider sanctions movement? Aside from repeated 2017 polls showing Trump with less than 35% support within the United States, Pew Research (2017) pollsters reported in mid-2017 that much of the world is strongly anti-Trump. Most opposed are Mexico, Spain, Jordan, Sweden, Germany, Turkey, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, France, Colombia, and Lebanon, all recording their citizenries’ support for Trump at less than 15 percent. (Only the Philippines, Vietnam, Nigeria, and Tanzania record more than 50 percent, although the two most populous countries, India and China, were not polled.) Sanctions campaigning against rogue regimes is a time-tested approach that has often succeeded in the past. Especially in the event that Trump initiates yet another unjust US war, a “people’s sanctions” strategy should put not only the president’s and First Daughter’s own product lines under pressure, but also tackle Trump-friendly big businesses such as ExxonMobil, Koch Industries and Goldman Sachs.

Trump’s vulnerabilities

Compared to any US leader in history, Trump’s presidency offers a superb chance for a unifying campaign on climate, as well as other critical issues. By mid-2017 it was clear that the conservative-populist wave he appeared to be riding into office in late 2016 – peaking in Britain with the June 2016 Brexit vote (or indeed in Hungary with Viktor Orbán’s 2010 election) – had decisively ebbed. In August 2017 following the debacle of neo-Nazis openly marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump’s straightforward racist and fascist supporters were forced to retreat, both on the streets – in U.S. cities such as Boston, San Francisco and Seattle, as progressive activists vastly outnumbered the right – and in the Oval Office. The once-formidable alt-right influences of Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Sebastian Gorka and Rich Higgins were short-lived once the “Deep State” and mainstream media called them out (Rose 2017), leaving only Stephen Miller in place.

It soon became evident that, within the US, Trump failed to build a new right-wing coalition under paleo-conservative leadership (a term reflecting an ‘economic nationalist’ orientation, in contrast to imperialist neo-conservatives). He also failed to take full control of the US state apparatus, and could not take advantage of the Republican hold over Congress. There, surprisingly high levels of disaffection were generated by two dozen “Republications In Name Only” (Rinos, as pro-Trump alt-right critics called them), thus foiling health care cutbacks and other legislative initiatives. Trump’s only genuine victories were appointing a reactionary member to the U.S. Supreme Court and unravelling a generation of EPA environmental-protection regulations, including rules on infrastructure construction that can withstand flooding.

The short-sightedness of this deregulation was exposed in the September 2017 hurricanes Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, whose intensity drew from the unprecedented warmth of Gulf waters. Also exposed was extreme differentiation in urban resilience along race and class lines (due to generations of ruling-class segregation strategies) as well as overall ecological vulnerability, especially once 13 of 41 superfund toxic sites in Texas were flooded, toxic chemical fires erupted, 11% of US oil refining capacity was temporarily disabled and the two hurricanes’ $200-$300 billion in damages were calculated. The (Republican) mayor of inundated Miami, Tomás Regalado, begged, “This is the time that the president and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change. If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”

Nearby, Trump’s own Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida survived Irma, benefiting from a government flood insurance deal for rich coastal property owners. Three months earlier, in response to his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, opposition Members of Congress had introduced proposed legislation to block such federal subsidies: the Prohibiting Aid for Recipients Ignoring Science (Paris) Act. Such climate-related delegitimation is vital for both internal and international resistance to Trump’s regime.

Internationally, the geopolitician Trump also failed to globalize his movement and identify logical allies for either building a climate denialist front (he was alone in rejecting Paris) or for coming wars (e.g. against North Korea, Iran and Venezuela – and perhaps later against China). His decision to deepen an ineffectual 16-year US quagmire in the Afghanistan war, his wild threats amidst nuclear brinkmanship in the Korean peninsula, and his weakness in Syria – in contrast to Vladimir Putin’s strength of purpose – reflected a propensity to drop bombs indiscriminately on civilians, rather than identifying and pursuing substantive solutions. Trump’s support for India against Pakistan, promotion of the feudalistic Saudi Arabian regime in intra-Gulf conflicts from Yemen to Qatar, and permission for ever more extreme Israeli Zionism, together confirmed his incompetence at managing the most volatile regions of the world – especially as the Middle East becomes increasingly tense and uninhabitable due to climate change. Likewise his natural allies fared poorly, as the Labour Party made surprising progress in the June 2017 British election and as fascist electoral threats anticipated in 2017 from Marine Le Pen in France, Gert Wilders in Holland, and the Alternative for Germany were contained.

But the most critical factor in his growing vulnerability would probably be the waning confidence Trump’s capitalist class allies retained in his leadership. Immediately after Trump’s Paris rejection, entrepreneur Elon Musk and Disney CEO Bob Iger quit his business advisory councils, as did several other leading managers of major corporations in August 2017 following his ambivalence about criticizing racists and fascists within his base, immediately after Charlottesville. To save face, he simply dissolved the two councils. Still, Trump’s delegitimation was not complete, for important fractions of capital – especially in the real estate and construction, military, fossil fuel, and banking sectors – still anticipate much-improved profits if Trump’s over-ambitious, carbon-intensive infrastructure program is launched and if massive tax cut promises are fulfilled.

The next logical questions are whether Trump’s weaknesses can be harnessed in aid of climate sanctions, and whether a route can be identified from linking up a variety of progressive campaigns within climate justice to eco-socialism. Specifically, in order to shift power to the extent necessary for such a transition, will a people’s sanctions movement against the US elite also be necessary in coming months and years?

BDS-Trump advocacy

One immediate reaction to Trump’s rise was a call for boycott and sanctions against his own firm and associates: Color of Change (2016) pulled CocaCola out of the 2016 Republican Convention sponsorship; Grab Your Wallet compelled Nieman Marcus, Belk and Nordstroms to discontinue Ivanka Trump clothing sales; Sleeping Giants forced hundreds of advertisers which supported pro-Trump alt-right websites to withdraw their financing; and Boycott Trump has a long list of targets. Encouraged by the successes, a Boycott45 (2017) campaign expanded the sanctions strategies to Trump and Kushner tenant companies, on grounds their $100 million in annual rental payments “enable and normalize Trump and Kushner’s hateful and intolerant views and agenda, participate in Trump and Kushner’s unprecedented lack of transparency to use the office of the President to enrich themselves, and strengthen Trump’s political brand.” High-profile Trump buildings are located not only across the US, but also in Istanbul, Seoul, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto and Vancouver, Panama and Uruguay, Manila, Mumbai and Pune.

“Boycott Divestment Sanctions” (BDS) movements have recently been effective against Israeli apartheid and during1985-94, can be credited with splitting white business from the South African apartheid regime, in conjunction with very strong local protest. BDS against the US could succeed if US progressives are motivated to call for a world boycott of the US government plus key Trump-related corporations. Implementing a BDS-Trump strategy will be an important challenge for climate activists the world over, argues Klein (2016, 2017). She was soon joined by European Environmental Bureau leader Jeremy Wates (2017): “Trump is known to like walls. Maybe a wall of carbon tariffs around the U.S. is a solution he will understand.”

Indeed 25 major US corporations (including Apple, Facebook, Google, Morgan Stanley, Microsoft, Unilever and Gap) warned Trump in an open letter that “withdrawing from the agreement … could expose us to retaliatory measures” (Petroff 2017). Suddenly sanctions were discussed as a powerful, useful threat in diverse media sites like Forbes (Kotlikoff, 2017), Financial Times (Wolf 2017), DailyKos (Lenferna 2017), The Guardian (Stiglitz 2017) and The Independent (Johnston 2017). The credibility of sanctions was enhanced by Nobel Economics Prize Laureate Joseph Stiglitz (2006), who in a 2006 paper argued that, “unless the US goes along with the rest of the world, unless producers in America face the full cost of their emissions, Europe, Japan and all the countries of the world should impose trade sanctions against the US.” In May 2017, Stiglitz co-chaired a UN-mandated commission based at the World Bank that advocated widespread, urgent adoption of carbon taxes.

Even former French president Nicolas Sarkozy had in November 2016 raised the prospect of punishment against US products as a result of Trump’s climate-destructive campaign promises: “I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3 percent, for all products coming from the US, if the US doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies” (Kentish 2016). A technical policy term for such sanctions emerged: “border adjustment taxes” or for short, border measures which avoid World Trade Organization anti-protectionist penalties (such taxes are not a “disguised trade restriction”). In a front page story, the New York Times quoted a leading Mexican official at COP 22 in Marrakesh just after Trump’s win: “A carbon tariff against the US is an option for us. We will apply any kind of policy necessary to defend the quality of life for our people, to protect our environment and to protect our industries,” a point echoed by a Canadian official (Davenport 2016).

Ironically, when in 2009 Obama promoted carbon trading strategies within his ultimately-unsuccessful pro-market legislative strategy, further incentives were discussed so that big corporations would agree to emissions caps. Establishment economists like the Peterson Institute’s Gary Hufbauer and Jisun Kim (2009) observed that in such a context, US companies “paying to pollute” would need additional protection from outside competitors: “border measures seem all but certain for political reasons…. many U.S. climate bills introduced in the Congress have included border measures [against] imports from countries that do not have comparable climate policies.”

Sanctions against a person (Trump), a power bloc (Trumpism) and a system (capitalism)

To ramp up the existing initiatives requires a major unifying effort by US progressive groups, and a realization that international solidarity will be a critical force in shifting the power balance. Making the process as democratic as possible is vital. In 2006, 170 Palestinian civil society groups initiated BDS, insisting on three unifying demands: the retraction of illegal Israeli settlements (a demand won in the Gaza Strip) and the end of the West Bank Occupation and Gaza siege; cessation of racially-discriminatory policies towards the million and a half Palestinians living within Israel; and a recognition of Palestinians’ right to return to residences dating to the 1948 ethnic cleansing when the Israeli state was established. According to BDS-Israel co-founder Omar Barghouti (2011), “Boycott remains the most morally sound, non-violent form of struggle that can rid the oppressor of his oppression, thereby allowing true coexistence, equality, justice and sustainable peace to prevail. South Africa attests to the potency and potential of this type of civil resistance.”

Ronnie Kasrils (2015) – a leader of the underground movement and from 2004-08 the South African Minister of Intelligence – agrees: “BDS made apartheid’s beneficiaries feel the pinch in their pocket and their polecat status whether in the diplomatic arena, on the sporting fields, at academic or business conventions, in the world of theatre and the arts, in the area of commerce and trade and so on. Arms sanctions weakened the efficiency of the SA Defense Force; disinvestment by trade unions and churches affected the economy as did the termination of banking ties by the likes of Chase Manhattan and Barclays banks; boycott of products from fruit to wine saw a downturn in trade; the disruption of sports events was a huge psychological blow; dockworkers refusing to handle ship’s cargoes disrupted trade links.” The strategy drove a wedge between white (‘English-speaking’) Johannesburg capitalists and the racist (‘Afrikaner’) Pretoria regime. As internal protest surged, it was the 1985 foreign debt crisis caused in part by BDS which broke the capital-state alliance and compelled South Africa’s nine-year transition to democracy.

With Trumpism such a logical target, international solidarity to weaken that power requires a boycott of both high-profile state functionaries and key corporations in order to attack the legitimacy of profits made within a neo-fascist, climate-denialist USA. As Public Citizen’s Rob Weissman warns, the U.S. faces “a government literally of the Exxons, by the Goldman Sachses and for the Kochs” (Weissman 2017). In contrast, installing the eco-socialist governments required in the US and everywhere to generate a climate future that not only keeps the temperature within the scientifically necessary maximum and does so with justice at its very core will require a dramatic shift in the balance of forces. Such principles must be undergirded by further analysis of how to weaken the power structure, by the widening of delegitimation strategies beyond just Trump to major corporations, by the toughening of sanctions tactics and by the forging of international alliances urgently required to repeat the South African BDS success.

(Patrick Bond is distinguished professor of political economy at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, and author of Politics of Climate Justice, which the Guardian named in 2014 as among the three leading books on climate politics.)


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